Heart of Oklahoma City barely beat before MAPS

Oklahoma City officials struggled to bring improvements downtown in years before MAPS.
BY STEVE LACKMEYER slackmeyer@opubco.com Published: December 8, 2013
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Tiana Douglas knew that plans had to change if downtown Oklahoma City was ever going to come back to life.

Douglas, formerly an assistant city manager, was hired in 1985 to take over an Urban Renewal Authority that had successfully cleared hundreds of older buildings, but had not managed to do as well with rebuilding.

The agency, which once employed an army of more than 120 people in the mission to rebuild downtown and the area east of what is now Interstate 235, was down to a few people. The city itself was spiraling into an economic depression due to a crash in the oil industry.

During her first few years, Douglas focused much of her attention on attracting a developer to build a downtown “Galleria” mall along Sheridan Avenue, as had been envisioned by planner I.M. Pei in the mid-1960s. The property, filled “temporarily” with a sea of parking cutting across the middle of downtown, was an embarrassment to civic leaders.

“Things had ground to a screeching halt,” Douglas said. “We had a few fits and starts which mercifully did not take, like the downtown retail mall idea. Thank goodness that didn't happen.”

Likewise, Pat Downes was facing a similarly bleak mission trying to revive what was then known as the North Canadian River (now called the Oklahoma River). He had waged a yearslong pitch to city residents and civic leaders to back a plan called the String of Pearls, which would have created a series of attractions along the otherwise bleak riverfront.

Downtown founders

When the economy crashed, so did the String of Pearls. Downes struggled with a perception among residents that the plan had already been funded. But like Douglas, he plowed ahead in creating a riverfront authority to collect what revenues could be collected from various ventures on city land, and use that to spur future development.

The river didn't even look like a river. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers aggressively rerouted the river after a series of devastating floods in the 1920s and 1930s, straightened it, ripped out much of the greenery along the shores, and lined each side with rocks.

The waterway was designed to empty out quickly, and did just that. Downes' presentation frequently included the joke the North Canadian was the only river that had to be mowed three times a year.

A populace bitter over the legacy of the I.M. Pei Plan and Urban Renewal, meanwhile, had lost their connection to downtown. In the mid-1960s, Pei presented a vision of downtown that by 1989 would be the envy of the country. New high-rises would form the downtown skyline, with a monorail-laced Myriad Gardens, designed to rival the famous Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, drawing visitors from around the world.

Those visitors, of course, were going to spend their money at the Galleria across the street and stay in one of several new high-rise hotels.

Little housing

Housing would be built throughout the west end of downtown, while a new convention center and arena would anchor the east end.

Historic buildings like the Criterion and Warner theaters, the Baum and Midwest buildings, all had to be sacrificed in the name of progress.

“We always had the history before my time when historic preservation and energy conservation meant nothing,” Douglas said. “I.M. Pei thought it was a good idea of ripping the guts out of downtown Oklahoma City. We were then left with a lot of surface parking lots which served as interim economic development.”

Only one housing development, Sycamore Square, was actually built and it was struggling to stay open. Aside from Regency Tower, a high-rise housing tower built in the 1960s in reaction to the Pei Plan, dreams of luring people to live downtown had floundered.

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